Remembering BYU-Hawaii alum and PCC emcee Benny Kai

Written by: 
Samone Isom
Benny Kai smiles at the PCC, where he entertained with his ukulele

Benny Kai Jr., BYU-Hawaii alumni and Ambassador of Aloha, passed away at the age of 54 in his home two days before Christmas, surrounded by his family after a year and a half of battling lymphoma cancer.
“He shared his Hawaiian aloha spirit and entertained countless thousands of guests at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Aloha, Benny Kai. Aloha,” said the PCC Facebook page on the day of his death.

Sharon Craighead Kai, his wife of 32 years, said Kai contributed to PCC’s entertainment for most of his life. “He started when he was 17 or 18 years old, right out of high school. When he first started working there, he was a dancer, then a musician, then he became the emcee at the Luau and Hawaiian ambassador.”

Even after hospitalization, Kai continued to entertain. He would sing to other patients and he played for YouTube from his hospital bed, according to the Hawaii Reporter. Music helped him endure, Kai said before his death. “It almost ruined my will to live, but I always thought about my music,” Kai said to Hawaii News Now in May 2014.

His music had made him a crowd favorite at PCC for over 30 years, and he was well known for playing his ukulele behind his head and with his teeth. The Hawaii Reporter wrote in May 2014 that Kai was active in the community as well by, “sharing his Hawaiian heritage to the students of La’ie elementary school and Na Kamalei preschool, teaching music and Hawaiian culture to the keikis with his characteristic zeal and enthusiasm.”

The Kahuku, Laie and Hauula communities helped the Kai family in their time of need. Sharon said, “The community support was very much appreciated. It was other people wanting to do it, not us saying we need help. People just wanted to help.” To raise money for his stem cell transplant, a 5K was organized, as well as a concert at PCC.

“When I saw just the tidal waves of love and people just helping, I was just blown away,” Kai said to Hawaii News Now last May. “I cry because I am so grateful for the love. In Hawaii, we may live on an island, but yet our hearts are as big as the island.”

Kai never got his stem cell transplant, said his wife, Sharon. ”He didn’t because there was no match. Polynesian-Asian blood types are the ones who do not sign up for transplant. It is not an invasive transplant sort of thing—like bone marrow transplants—but people don’t know that. Its just stem cells like a blood donation. Good to know for everybody. I made all my kids sign up, even if it’s not a match for Dad.”

Sharon continued, “We met at BYU-Hawaii in a health class. He would serenade me under my dorm window. Bring me roses. I already had my mind set on going on a mission, so he decided to go, too. He went to the Philippines and I went to England. We got married July 3, 1982.”

Their daughter saw her parents’ strength in their final days. “The love my parents had for each other is priceless. With a courageous spirit, Dad tackled his race head on with Mom beside him. He has helped us heal with his bright smile,” Tasha Kai, daughter and Olympic gold medalist, said to former mayor Mufi Hannemann, who wrote of his own memories of the musician in Midweek.

“He had a contagious smile and was a gifted musician. Through the years, when I would bump into Benny in the community, the wide grin was embedded on his countenance. Benny had a heart of gold,” wrote Hannemann.

Sharon chuckled as she said, “He loved to bear his testimony, he loved to sing. He is probably still singing,”

Uploaded January 21, 2015